It is an exciting time for 83-year old Bendigo-based manufacturer Keech Australia as the firm prepares to flick the switch on its new high tech production line, which incorporates the latest Industry 4.0 sensor and computer programming technology.
Built around information sharing and process improvements, Keech, which makes high integrity steel castings, believes it is introducing the world’s most efficient production line into its business.
“Our staff anywhere in the world can actually be watching this production line and manipulate it remotely,” says Keech Chief Executive Dr Herbert Hermens.
“We already have systems now that can give transparency to our customers, but this takes it another step further.”
While the firm has been operating for eight decades and employs traditional foundry equipment such as arc and induction furnaces, Keech also embraces 3D printing, and has built a design team with the brightest minds in the business.
“Some people looking from the outside into an organisation such as this see it as old technology and I can tell you it is far from that. The complexity is enormous,” says Dr Hermens.
“Even a few degrees can ruin a melt. We have highly qualified engineers at the doctorate level working within the company to make it successful. We now have a very important 3D element in our company. So we think our company is in fact a high-tech business and I certainly treat it as such.”
Keech’s suite of various sized 3D printers make prototypes and moulds quickly, sometimes overnight, to demonstrate what a proposed part will look like to a customer.
“There is a great appreciation for that immediacy,” Dr Hermens says.
Keech offers ground engaging tools, tillage implements, rolling stock components and custom casting products. Around 30 per cent of revenue comes from mining and the firm also services rail, construction, agriculture and defence.
Keech has grown exports dramatically from just 2-to-3 per cent of its business eight years ago to a “significant” portion today, selling to Japan, Europe, America, South America, South Africa and “all points in between.”
“This company could not survive just being a local supplier. So now we have a subsidiary in Chile, and we have engineers who travel around the world working with our end-user customers. Our focus is truly on the global market, which reaps benefits for our domestic customers as well,” Dr Hermens says.
“Our reputation does spread. We have been able to align ourselves with some very high-quality, key manufacturers elsewhere in the world and that allows us to build a partnership-type approach. They want to build a relationship and want us to be part of a design criteria and want us to understand their customers.”
Customer trust and going the extra mile is essential in order to beat out the competition, says Dr Hermens.
“You can’t just supply a widget. The moment you supply a widget the biggest hurdle for Australia comes into play – the cost. What we need to do is supply ‘more than.’ You don’t necessarily get any more money for it but what you do is reduce the focus on price,” he says.
“That is certainly the key to Keech. Understanding what the customer, the manufacturer really wants from you and how you can improve that delivery. So then all of a sudden when you look into that supply chain it is very difficult to knock you back out again because it is not just about somebody making it cheaper than you. It is about somebody being able to replicate the quality of supply package that you represent.”
The team is highly adaptable in a challenging world, where every relationship is “just slightly nuanced,” and many customers now are looking for more than just supply of “a thing,” which was adequate only ten years ago.
“We can no longer assume that if we supply a certain product of a certain quality in a certain time frame, that is enough. Customers are now seeking more and more and more and putting more responsibility onto suppliers.
Keech’s own examples include introducing faster change-out times for a particular mining product to improve ease of use, as well as redesigning an 11-part product to four parts, greatly reducing welding as well as processing and attachment times.
“This saved money, secured Keech the customer and meant price was no longer such an issue because the service went beyond supplying a part,” Dr Hermens explains.
“We have gone to a great deal of effort to understand the end user. In terms of quality I think we are equal to any other company you could point to anywhere in the world. That only happens when you put yourself out there and say we are prepared to come to you.”